“Between Hope and Love” Luke 2:22-40

What do you do in the “in-between” places?  

          In many respects this Sunday, (the first Sunday of Christmas,) always feels like an “in-between” space for me.

          Christmas Eve is past. 

The presents have all been opened.  

A ton of energy has been expended on the preparation, the music, the worship, and the family gathering. 

Prodigious amounts of foods have been consumed.

The celebrations are largely past.

          But it is still the old year, the new has not yet dawned.

We await these last few days for the countdown to midnight, the turning of the age and the turning of the calendar page.

 Then we will eat the Black-eyed peas for good luck, make our resolutions and champagne toasts in hopeful anticipation for a fresh start and a better year.  

We mark time a bit in these days after Christmas and before the New Year.

          This is an “in-between time.

          Once you ponder that, your mind begins to think of all the other places where we have “in-between” times in our life.

          There is the time between getting to the doctor’s office and actually seeing the doctor.

          There is the half time in the ball game, the seventh inning stretch in baseball, the intermission for plays and music concerts.

          We have in-between times in our travels (when we can do that again) lay-overs and times in the que for security, and the space between when the wait staff takes our order and when the food is actually served.

          We have grown accustomed to filling our “in-between” times with devices and gadgets.  The phone comes out, the I-pad opens up, we peruse the news, play a game, or send a message.

          Our In-between times have become filled with distractions!

          Perhaps that is what preoccupied my thoughts a I read the Gospel lesson this year. 

Anna and Simeon seem to also occupy an “in-between time.”    They hold the space  between the birth of Jesus and the actions of the grown Jesus.  

They occupy the space of hopes for what will be, what will be done, and the space where love comes, when we learn what Jesus will do and be to this world.

Right at this moment we have only the revelation of the Angels to Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds to go on. 

We have some general hopes of what will be, some expectations of this child someday, but right now Jesus is but a baby eight days old, and what can you see in that?

You can see love.

That is what Simeon and Anna can see.

They are in the Temple “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” we are told, but I can think of no other verses in the bible where the Holy Spirit is so pervasive!

The Holy Spirit “rests” on Simeon.

The Holy Spirit “reveals” to Simeon that he will not see death before seeing God’s saving activity, seeing the Messiah.

The Spirit guides Simeon to be in the Temple at this particular time, when Mary and Joseph are coming for the purification rites for Mary’s sake, and like all young parents they simply have the baby in tow this day.

The Spirit, it appears, is everywhere in the “in-between” time, and incredibly active, and Luke wants us to see and to know that.

The Spirit gives Simeon something to say to this moment, a thanksgiving uttered for an in-between time, with no expectation of seeing any of this come to fruition!

 It is enough to simply hold the babe in his arms and pronounce what will be.   “This child shall be for the falling and rising of many in Israel.”

It is enough to see the baby who will someday meet opposition, and expose the inner thoughts of many and yes, be a source of heart ache, a source of pain for Mary, as if a sword were piercing her own soul.

It is enough for old Anna to just catch sight of the child.  It is enough to have the Spirit also seem to enter her and give her utterance to praise God and to speak of the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.

What do you do in the “in-between time?”   

For Simeon and Anna, it is not a time to be filled with distractions!

It is rather a time to pay particular attention to what the Holy Spirit is doing.

You look for the Holy Spirit to move in the “in-between time!”

You listen to what others can see when you cannot see it yourself.   

You listen to what the Holy Spirit is revealing to those who would normally be going about their daily business and their normal routine.

You praise God for this “in-between” time, which is a time of when the Holy Spirit seems particularly active. 

The Holy Spirit is not so much doing things directly, as it is preparing and filling in the gaps between hopes for the child and the love that is apparent.

This is when the Spirit gets busy, in the in-between times.

This is when unlikely witnesses come forth, and the people who are usually in the background.  These characters now come to the fore to point out what would otherwise be overlooked.

It’s not time yet, but it’s close, so close I can now rest in peace, consider the redemption of Israel a done deal!

It’s not time yet, but it’s close, so close that we can give praise to God for the child and speak about hopes for a better future openly.

This is what you do with the in-between moment, the time between hoping and watching love enter the world.

I am struck by that this year, because so much of this year has felt like an “in-between time.”

We’re not traveling or going to ball games.  We’re not even going out to eat. 

We are in the space between the outbreak of the pandemic and the time when the vaccine allows us to return to more normal patterns of life.

We are in the “in-between” time.   Somewhere between our hopes for a better world and the kind of love that it will take to get us there.

Some are indeed filing this time with distractions.  

They carry on as if the days were normal.

Others hunker down and wait the difficulty out, retract into themselves to protect themselves.

Some find new distractions to take their mind off what they can no longer do, and where they cannot yet go.

But if the in-between time is the time that the Holy Spirit chooses to move, then maybe instead of falling into the pattern of distraction we should take a cue from Anna and Simeon and look more intently at the sights we have viewed a thousand times before, scanning to see if God is doing something new!

This may be the time for us when the Holy Spirit is resting on us, guiding us, and revealing things to us.

This may be the time when we need to put down our phones and look around at what the Spirit is doing in our midst.

This may be the time for us to listen to old Simeon’s words which are not all glowing and upbeat.

People will stumble and fall over Jesus.

People will also rise to the occasion.   They will be inspired and empowered to do more than they thought they were capable of doing.

There is light shining, but that does not mean that Jesus and the disciples will not know dark days, darkness over the land, — but the light shines and the darkness does not overcome it.

There is hope!

There is love coming!

That is a promise.

Can we see with the eyes of old Simeon, God at work in unexpected ways through unexpected people, ordinary people who are just doing what needs to be done?

Can we give thanks for those who simply attend to “eighth day” formalities (there are so many, too many to list or name, the people who are just doing what needs to be done!)

In their attention to doing such work, can we dare to see the Holy Spirit at work?

This may be a time for us to listen to old Anna and find a way to sing praises for them even when it is tough to sing!   No eighty-something woman that I know of has a pristine and melodic voice, it is usually cracked and cackled, warbly and imprecise, but Anna sings praises nonetheless for what she sees, and for the hope of a better future! 

Can we sing praises to God for the ordinary, and with such words extol the child? 

Can we see with Anna’s eyes, the need to give thanks and praise to God even in the midst of our own decline and pain?  

Can we raise our voices and sing out a song in cackled and cracking voices for the sheer joy of doing so?

This is where we are, in the gap between hope for the vaccine and love for our neighbor.  

This is where the Holy Spirit gets busy.

This is when the Spirit rests on us, guides us, and gives us something to say to world that is otherwise too scared and distracted to see that God is in our midst.

“What Kind of a Greeting this might be?” Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26-38

“What Kind of a Greeting this might be?”

          It must be said straight away that Mary is no dummy.   She knows a greeting that has a certain edge to it when she hears it.

          “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.”

          “What kind of a greeting might this be?” she wonders, perplexed at it.

          I recently traded in my vehicle, and I can tell you that there is a marked difference from the kind of greeting one gets when one goes in to purchase a car, and the kind of greeting one gets when one has to go back to the same dealership to let them know that there is something wrong with the car just purchased.

          The first greeting is all, “Hey, Merle is it?  Good to meet you, how can we help you today?   What do I have to do to get you into this car, help you make this decision?”

          The second greeting when you go back is much more reserved and tentative, “Oh?  Well, I’m sorry, what was your name again?  Let me see if I can find you a manager….”

          If Mary is perplexed by the greeting, it might just be that she is detecting the hint of a “sales job” in the voice of Gabriel the messenger.

          Just what kind of “favored” are we talking about here?

          We soon discover that as the message is delivered.  Gabriel tells Mary that in her small village where everyone knows everyone else’s business, she will conceive, bear a son, and name him not after the father as would be usual… not after Joseph, but will instead name him Jesus, Yeshua, — “God Saves.”

          So far having “favored status” with God includes having to endure teen pregnancy in a small town, getting no big gender reveal (as is fashionable these days,) and not even having naming rights to the child. 

          I’m feeling “favored” right about now, how about you?

          If the third week of Advent gives us a break and focuses us on Joy, then Advent four plunges us right back into the realm of expectation and gritty reality.

          Being “favored” by God is going to be a major disruption to Mary’s life!

          This has (in fact) long been a theme in Israel’s history.   To be favored, chosen, would bring with it blessing yes, — but it also carried with it a heavy dose of expectation and personal cost. 

          God had chosen Abram to receive blessing, but that entailed Abram leaving his home and everything behind and sojourning to a new land.

          God had chosen Moses to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt, but that entailed Moses going toe-to-toe with the Pharaoh and 40 years of wandering in the wilderness with a complaining people.

          God had chosen Joshua (Yeshua) to lead the people into the promised land, but that would entail conquering an already occupied land and contending with difficult neighbors.

          God had chosen a whole slew of Judges and Prophets whose call stories would reveal how it is that God raises up leaders and spokespersons, favoring them with the skills or words needed for their time and their circumstances, but also asking much of them in return as they accomplished God’s intended purpose.

          I’ve got to tell you, when you pull these stories apart and look at the implications of being “favored” by God, it’s not all picnics and roses.

          No, Mary is no dummy!  

If God comes at you with a message that says you have found favor with God?   There is almost always sure to be another shoe to drop.  

Mary seems to sense right away that being “favored” is going to mean something difficult will be asked of her, for no good thing worth doing ever comes about without sacrifice, or effort, or some amount of personal cost.

Being “favored” by God is going to be a major disruption to your life!

          I’m not sure we keep that as firmly in mind as we should when we consider our own faith journey, our own experience of hearing from God’s messengers.

          Favor is conferred upon Mary.  She is called to become the “God bearer” to this world, the “Theotokos” as the Greek phrases it, with all that will end up costing her personally.

          God’s favor is indeed also conferred upon us, and we are (in a sense) also called to be “Theotokos” in a way – “God bearers” to this world.

          We do not bear the Christ child in a womb, as Mary did.

          No, we bear the presence of God in our words, in our actions, and in our decisions.

          We bear the presence of God to this world in the ways that we care for our neighbors and care about one another.

          We bear the presence of God in this world in the advocacy that we do on behalf of those who have no voice, and in the ways that we choose to work and to live.

          So, “Hail, oh favored one, the Lord is with you.”  — this day!

          Prepare to be a little perplexed, (as Mary was,) at such a greeting when it comes your way, because (like Mary) you might just be sensing a bit of a “sales job” that is about to follow!

          God has to convince you that the things that Jesus will come to say, the actions that Jesus will do, the teachings that Jesus will put forth are all better ways of doing things than the current world’s patterns.

          “Hail, O favored one!”

          It will not seem natural.  

It will feel like a departure from the way this world expects things to work.  Following Jesus and what he calls us to do will not come without cost.

          “Hail, oh favored one….”

          Being “favored” by God is going to be a major disruption to your life!

          But, in addition to being favored and there being a cost, there is also this promise.  

“The Lord is with you!”

          I’m not sure we fully grasp that either, because an awful lot of the time we feel kind of left out there on our own, particularly when we are trying to be faithful!    Trying to do “God bearing” work in this world.

          This too, is a pattern in the scriptures.

          Jesus says to his disciples when they are confronted with a hungry crowd, “you give them something to eat!”

          “A year’s wages would not buy enough bread to give each one a morsel!” one disciple complains, and another pipes up “all we have are five loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many?”

          It is never enough at first glance, nor does the action make any sense on the surface.  

          But broken and blessed, handed over to Jesus, those five loaves and two fish become favored and it feeds and it fills and left overs are gathered up!

          It never seems to stop, the need, the crowds looking to the favored ones for signs.

It never seems to slow down, the people coming with needs, looking to you for action, to do something, or for some relief.

          The crowds follow looking for bread.  

Looking for healing. 

Looking for a sign.

          This too, is a part of being “favored” it seems.

          A warning old Simeon will speak in a week here, a reminder to Mary that a “sword will piece your own soul as well.”

          Caring and answering the call to be favored by God will bring you heartache.

          Nevertheless, God will be with you.

          God will be with you through it all, and in it all, and God will sustain, and God will provide.   This is perhaps the hardest lesson for those who find favor with God to cling to and to hold on to.  

          This is the lesson that runs most contrary to the way that this world thinks and works.

          This is the dividing line between trusting, and being realistic, which is another reason why I really like Mary in this story. 

          It is not that she is wide eyed or naïve, going into this with no idea what it will all mean, what it is that it may cost her.

          She goes into this with her eyes wide open, perplexed at the greeting and skeptical, to be sure, sensing the “sales job”  but ready to listen and take in what being “favored” might mean.

It is not perplexing to be approached by a celestial being it seems, but what is perplexing is the greeting itself, and the idea that she of all people would be favored by God.    

She, of all people would be singled out by God as having a part in God’s ongoing work in redeeming this world.

Maybe that is our surprise as well.

We do not doubt that God can do great things!  That we are sure of!  We have seen it happen time and again in the lives of others.

We do not find it difficult to believe that God would provide, that God could provide, or that God could cause meager resources to stretch beyond belief.   We have seen that too in the stories told throughout history, and recounted around us as the experience of others.

It is not hard for us to imagine God calling and favoring someone to do great things.  God has done that in the past and will do it into the future until history is brought to a final chapter.

No, we are just perplexed that such favor might indeed come to us!

We are perplexed that we, that I might be the one favored by God — called upon to bear God to this corner of the world, our own corner of the world.

We are perplexed when we think that maybe God would be calling us to bear God to this place with the things that we have in our hands, and nothing really to lean back on but the sheer promise that God will be with us in the midst of it.

Mary is no dummy.  

She senses the sales job in Gabriel’s words! 

The miracle in the story is that even sensing the sales job and being perplexed that this comes to her, she responds, “Let is be with me according to your word.”

She trusts.

She serves.

She accepts God’s favoring.

Would that we might have such a response as well to God’s favor when it comes to us!

Would that we, perplexed as we might be that God would choose to use us, use me, to be “God bearers” to this world, — we would nevertheless answer as Mary did.

“Here I am, the servant of the Lord.”